Imagine the scene: The Iraq war has just ended with Saddam Hussein’s forces surrendering to the U.S.-led coalition. The question is: Which Iraqi authority will the victorious coalition deal with after that?
This was the question put to senior officials from the Bush administration during a congressional hearing in Washington last Tuesday. Their answers convinced no one. They repeat the “going in and going out” policy which means that the U.S. is determined to conquer Iraq and topple its regime, but has no plans to maintain a military presence there beyond a “brief moment.”
One senior administration official, pressed to state the maximum length of that “brief moment,” suggested that two years would be long enough. But who would rule Iraq in that period?
The answer is not clear. And that is not good enough.
Iraq today is not like Germany in 1945. It is important for the U.S. and its allies to have at least some vision of the transition period in Baghdad before they pull the trigger against Saddam.
Such vision, of course, is determined by how the present regime falls. Efforts are under way to persuade Saddam to go into exile. Some Arab states even want that option to be included in the next Security Council resolution, so that Saddam and his immediate entourage receive immunity from prosecution at the highest possible level.
We may, however, assume that Saddam will choose the worst option as he always has, and refuse the exile formula. That, in turn, would give the U.S. the pretext it needs to conquer Iraq and decide who should rule it.
Some Arabs are urging the U.S. to opt for a direct military rule in Baghdad. Jordan clearly favors that option for at least two years during which Iraqi society will have time to regain its bearings. A plea for direct American military rule has also come from Fouad Ajami, one of the most influential of American experts on the Middle East. Ajami advises the U.S. to appoint a military ruler in Baghdad, repeating the American experiences in postwar Germany and Japan.
In my opinion, however, the Bush administration would make a mistake if it were to take that advice. Appointing an American military ruler in Baghdad is the worst of options in a post-Saddam Iraq.
There are several reasons for this. The first is that direct American rule could amount to a temporary eclipse of the Iraqi state. Those who dismiss Iraq as an “artificial construct” might not be impressed by such a prospect. But the fact is that a sense of Iraqi statehood has taken shape during the past 80 years.
In fact, Iraq is one of the oldest member states of the United Nations. It was among the 53 nations that founded an organization that now has 200 members. Any disappearance of the Iraqi state, even if temporary, could encourage fissiparous tendencies within the country while encouraging dark designs in neighboring states.
Iraq has irredentist problems with all of its six neighbors. Turkey might want to invoke its “rights of observation” in northern Iraq under the Treaty of Lausanne. Iran, for its part, might revive the Erzerum treaties that give it similar rights in southern Iraq where the Shiite holy shrines are located.
A temporary eclipse of the Iraqi state would be hard to manage at practical levels as well.
For example, would the American military rule be extended to the existing Kurdish “safe haven” where a form of democracy has been established in the past decade? If not, are we going to have two forms of government in post-Saddam Iraq: one for the Arabs, the other for the Kurds?
Could an American military ruler negotiate Iraq’s definitive borders with its neighbors, ending decades of territorial claims and counterclaims?
Post-Saddam Iraq would need huge investment to rebuild its shattered infrastructure and revive its economy. Can an American military ruler decide what economic model to adopt or how to share the oil revenues among Iraq’s different regions and communities? How would an American military ruler cope with dissent by Iraqis who, though glad to see the end of Saddam, might not be happy to be ruled in neocolonial fashion?
Iraq in 2003 is not Germany in 1945. The Hitlerite regime had virtually no domestic opponents. When the allies conquered Germany they could not find many competent Germans who had not been active Nazis at one time or another. In Iraq, however, the Saddamite regime has faced opposition from the Iraqi people right from the start. The first uprising against it came in January 1969 just months after the Baathist coup on July 17, 1968.
Since then Iraq has experienced two full-scale civil wars, countless uprisings, and an almost daily show of dissent.
During the past 30 years, some 4.2 million Iraqis have fled into exile. Thousands have been executed for their opposition to the regime. Dissent has affected all levels of Iraqi society, including senior levels of the ruling party, the army and even Saddam’s own family. If toppling the Saddamite tyranny is so easy while destroying Hitler was hard, the reason is that the Iraqi regime, unlike the German one, has virtually no popular support base.
The Iraqi people must be regarded not as enemy combatants, but as innocent victims of a hijacking. They have to be rescued. But once rescued there is no reason why the rescue team should assume control of their lives. Despite three decades of the most ferocious repression, the Iraqis have succeeded in maintaining a degree of political diversity that is greater than in most other Arab countries.
The U.S.-led coalition must help the Iraqis set up their transition government, write their new constitution, and organize the elections needed. The transition authority could include elements from the now-united opposition, plus others who are bound to emerge from within Iraq as the regime disintegrates.
That model worked in Italy at the end of World War II and in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. There is no reason why it should not work in Iraq. Although Iraq must be liberated with the help of outside forces, it can be ruled only by the Iraqis.
— Amir Taheri is author of The Cauldron: The Middle East behind the headlines. Taheri is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.